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© Jeff Matthews   entry Apr 2008

Obscure composers (6)

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In the early 1800s, many composers whose names are little known to us today had to compete with Rossini; he was a child of the French revolution and the age of Napoleon, and unlike other composers just a few years his senior, he did not have to learn to be a Romantic. Rossini composed his first professional opera when he was 18 and by the time he was hired by the San Carlo impresario, Domenico Barbaia, to come to Naples five years later, he already had a name for himself. Very few of his operas have to do with the mythological Greek past of the opera seria with the obligatory libretto by Metastasio. His dramatic operas are based on historical themes more of interest to Europeans of the early 19th century: Elizabetta, regina d'Inghelterra (the first of his works to be performed in Naples), Otello, Maometto II, William Tell, etc.

Some other composers on the San Carlo program for the years following Rossini's arrival included Giovanni Pacini (dealt with in part 1 of this series). Also, we find a name still familiar to many Neapolitans, although they may have forgotten exactly why (besides the fact that there is a theater named for him in Naples).

Mercadante   
That theater is named for Saverio Mercadante (1795-1870); he was born near Bari and studied music in Naples. Today he is primarily remembered as one of the directors of the Naples conservatory, a role he assumed in 1840. In the few years before that, however, his music was very popular and he was mentioned in the same breath as Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti. Mercadante composed about 60 operas, some of which are occasionally revived. He is significant, too, in that he was one of the few Italian composers of his day interested in composing instrumental music. There is a prominent theater in Naples named for him.
[also see this update]

Pietro Raimondi  (1786-1853). His Ciro in Babilonia was performed in 1819 at San Carlo. He was from Rome but studied music in Naples. Very few of his operas were successful. If anything, he is remembered as somewhat of a forerunner of experimental music, such things as his triple oratorio, Putifar-Giuseppe-Giacobbe from 1848, a set of three independent oratorios designed to be performed first consecutively, and then simultaneously! (If you don't like Charles Ives now, you wouldn't have liked Raimondi then.) He composed a double opera, as well, which has still never been performed, either consecutively or simultaneously.

Gaspare Spontini (1774-1851) was from Ancona, but studied at the Pietà dei Turchini conservatory in Naples before moving to France, where he became a prominent figure in French opera. His operas were eclipsed in the mid- and late 19th century but had a few revivals in the 20th century, including a San Carlo performance in 1951 of his Fernando Cortez.

Somewhat later, we find the figure of Errico Petrella (1813-1877). He was born just as Rossini was getting started. As a matter of fact, he was born in the same year as Giuseppe Verdi. Aye, there's the rub. Petrella was one of the most successful Italian composers in the 1850s and 1860s. Verdi scorned him both in words and by writing better music, and that is all it took. In spite of early success, the only one of his operas that made it into the 20th century was Jone, from 1858, an opera based on Edward Bulwer-Lytton's famous novel The Last Days of Pompeii.

Also of that generation is Giuseppe Lillo (1814-1863). He was born in Galatina, almost at the tip of the heel of the boot of Italy in the modern province of Lecce. He was a prodigy and accepted into the Naples conservatory at the age of 12. Lillo wrote his first work, a comic opera, in 1834, and three years later his dramatic opera Odda di Bernaver was presented at San Carlo. He toured to Venice, Milan, Florence and Rome where he presented his opera, Rosmunda in Ravenna. His best-known work is Caterina Howard, based on the book of the same name by Alexander Dumas, Sr. It played at San Carlo in 1849 in the same season as Rossini’s Moses in Egypt and Verdi’s Nabucco. From accounts of the season, Lillo’s work was as well received as those of the formidable competition. He also composed sacred music and chamber music and became a professor at the conservatory. He died at the age of 49 in Naples, certainly with much music left to write.

From about 1830, the opera business changed greatly in Naples and elsewhere. The Neapolitan impresario, Barbaia, went over to a performance schedule centered around tried and trusted music and composers. There were certainly financial reasons for this as well as the logistical reason that the French had consolidated all of the Neapolitan conservatories into a single institution. All in all, there was much less of the earlier free-wheeling atmosphere of San Carlo as "on-the-job-training" for new composers. By the 1830s and 1840s, the names of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and then Verdi absolutely dominate opera in Naples and in Italy, in general. The reputations of contemporaries such as Pacini, Mercadante, Petrella and the rest have simply been obscured.
      
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